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On the Use and Abuse of “Orality” for Art: Reflections on Romantic and Late Twentieth-Century Poiesis
Maureen N. McLane
It is not an overstatement to say that, in the last decades of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth centuries, almost every major British literary poet found him- or herself engaging with oral tradition, as well as with the figure of the oral poet, his work, his cultural position, and his method of composition. Oral tradition acquired new status not only as a legitimate fund of cultural authority but also a resource for the making and annotating of “original,” literary poetry.1 The image of the oral poet, moreover, fired the Romantic imagination—whether this poet was imagined as Ossian, “the last of his race,” purported bard of third-century Scottish warriors,2 or as a seventeenth-century “last minstrel” singing his dying
On the changing and disputed cultural status of oral tradition[s] in British literary culture, see in particular Trumpener 1997. With respect to Scotland in particular, and its simultaneous idealization and degradation of “the oral,” see Fielding 1996. On the controversy attending the Ossian poems, published by James Macpherson throughout the 1760s, there is an ever-growing bibliography. To examine further the cause of this furor, see Macpherson 1996. For a lucid and measured survey of the Ossian controversy, its “three phases,” and more broadly of Macpherson’s career, see deGategno 1989. The impact of “Ossianism” on eighteenth-century literary culture is signaled in Fiona Stafford and Howard Gill’s From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations (1998). Stafford has written extensively on Macpherson, his career, the Ossian poems, and their reception: see, for example, Stafford 1988 and 1994:ch. 4. Trumpener 1997 offers a compelling analysis of the cultural politics of the Ossian controversy, Samuel Johnson’s role in fomenting it, his famed hostility to Scotland, and more particularly his rejection of oral tradition. That the cultural politics of Ossian remain volatile is evident in the collection of fiercely partisan [pro-Macpherson] critical essays gathered in Gaskill 1991.
strains to defeated Scots nobles, or as a contemporary Highland lass singing as she reaped.3 In the following pages I propose to discuss what has been called “the romance of orality”4 as a particularly lively and vexed opportunity for literary poets, both romantic and contemporary. For writers such as Walter Scott, Thomas Moore, Robert Burns, and William Wordsworth, ancient ballads and contemporary oral traditions offered a kind of poetic archive, a resource both for writing their own poetry and for theorizing the cultural work of poetry. There is by now a critical consensus that British Romantics, like their German counterparts, turned to ideas of the primitive, organic culture, folk essence, and fantasies of childish or völkisch naïveté in their efforts to rejuvenate what they saw as a hidebound art: this is one way to understand, for example, the elevation of the ballad in the late eighteenth century. This romance between highly cultivated literary poets and the primitive, however defined, must equally be seen as a romance with orality. To map fully the longstanding literary romance with orality—a romance that still persists, as I will later argue—is a task that exceeds the scope of this essay; we can, however, begin to sketch the contours of some of its constitutive aspects. In recent decades, scholars have reanimated the “scandals of the ballad,” to use Susan Stewart’s phrase: controversies involving disputes over authenticity, fakery, and forgery; the status of oral tradition and manuscript evidence; and national and otherwise partisan styles of editing and scholarship.5 The historicist and materialist turn in contemporary literary studies helps us to see how these eighteenth-century scandals—fueled by the success of James Macpherson’s Ossian poems, Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), Chatterton’s
For a discussion of the image of “the last bard” and the trope of “the last of the race,” see Stafford 1994:espec. ch. 4 and ch. 7. Among the many such representations, Walter Scott’s “Lay of the Last Minstrel” (1805) was the most commercially successful. The poem as cited here is from the 1830 edition of The Poetical Works of Walter Scott, together with the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Scott 1830). Further references to the poem will be cited in text by canto and stanza. In McLane 2001. I have since discovered that in her wonderful Writing and Orality (1996) Penny Fielding uses the same phrase, observing that when the “romance of orality” is “constructed by a dominant ideology it begins to look suspiciously like writing” (10)—that is, as fixed, authoritative, monologic, and culturally hegemonic. Some oralities, that is, are better than others, and in a “graphocentric society” (10), it is the elite literati who sift and determine the values and meanings of the oral.
5 4 3
Stewart 1994:espec. ch. 3 and ch. 4.
USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART
fabricated Rowley poems, and numerous ballad collections—emerged within a context of cultural nationalism (e.g. in the Ossian controversy, which pitted Scottish literary nationalists against English chauvinist foes like Samuel Johnson), changing copyright law, and new institutions of print capital.6 The editors and literary imitators of “ancient ballads” presented their works in book form to literate, cultivated audiences; these literary productions explicitly concerned themselves with the problem of representing, theorizing, and historicizing “orality,” including such features as composition-in-performance, communal memory, folk tradition, oral transmission, and mediation. Particularly striking is the development, in the work of such antiquarians as Thomas Percy and later Romantic poet-editors like Walter Scott, of preliminary and controversial “oral theories” of poetry, including theories about the “ancient minstrels” who purveyed ballads and romances.7 The figure of the minstrel, reconstructed and reinvented in the mid-eighteenth century, emerges as one type of the oral poet; he also emerges, in antiquarian and romantic discourse, as the figure of poetic obsolescence and decay.8
For trenchant accounts of these scandals and their implications, see Stewart 1994, which emphasizes the historical-material conditions of literary production, and Trumpener 1997, which focuses on the dialectic between imperialism and cultural nationalism. Groom 1999 offers not only a thorough account of Percy’s project but also invaluable reflections on the theoretical implications of Percy’s edition, which Groom characterizes as “a three-volume anthology of ballads, songs, sonnets, and romances . . . probably the finest example of the antiquarian tendency in later eighteenth-century poetry. It is also symptomatic of the emerging discipline of scholarly editing. It dramatizes the encounters between literate and oral media, between polite poetry and popular culture, and between scholarship and taste” (2). See Groom 1999 as well for the religious and nationalistic animosities fueling the antagonism between partisans of Percy and those of his scourge, the antiquarian and editor Joseph Ritson. For Percy’s musings on English minstrels, see Percy 1886/1996:Appendix I. For further reflections on Percy’s minstrel theory, see Groom 1999:espec. 61-105. For Scott’s account of minstrel poetry, see Scott 1830:5-16. On the revivification of minstrels and “minstrel origins theory,” see Stewart 1994. As Groom writes, “Minstrels . . . were oral poets” (1999:99). The minstrel offered Percy an image of the English oral poet that could, in colonialist fashion, subsume and trump images of Welsh and Scottish bards; English minstrelsy was also a mechanism for gathering and nationalizing local and regional poetic traditions within England. Groom notes further that “Minstrels also developed at the margins of orality and literacy. By plotting the borders, Percy melded together a national tradition, and clarified Englishness” (100).
8 7 6
in addition to those already mentioned. if not answer. 7-12 Some essential texts informing this discussion. Mediation. Recent scholarship on eighteenth. . Who sung of Border chivalry. and transmission? The early work of Walter Scott and William Wordsworth will help us to meditate on. . especially early in their careers. composition. and at rest. His tuneful brethren all were dead. And as poets considered by their contemporaries as well as ours to be representative of their age. Hazlitt’s remarks (1930): “Walter Scott is the most popular of all the poets of the present day. He has none of Mr Wordsworth’s idiosyncracy” (154). and deservedly so. Finnegan 1992. were preoccupied with and stimulated by the problem of representing orality. welladay! their date was fled. Havelock 1986. Goody 1977. and other forms of textual “fixing”) required by literary uses of orality. Walter Scott. .9 And thus we might ask: how was orality harnessed to romantic poetry? What discursive functions did an invocation of “oral communication” or “oral tradition” perform? What kind of authority was imagined to inhere in such invocations? What did the imagined fate of orality have to say about the fate of literary poetry? How did the turn to orality inform literary poets’ poems as well as their notions about performance. and Nagy 1996. Both of these poets. some of these questions. mediation. oral theory and media theory help us to reflect further on the processes of mediation (for example. are Ong 1982. He is the reverse of Walter Scott in his defects and excellences” (156).138 MAUREEN McLANE These developments may be seen as aspects of what we might call “the oral turn” in the literature of this period. Introduction to Canto I. For.and nineteenth-century literature has illuminated the cultural and political stakes of this turn.10 Representing Orality: Romantic Poiesis. neglected and oppress’d. transcription. printing. and the OralLiterate Problematic Ventriloquizing and Historicizing Orality: Scott’s Minstrelsy The last of all the Bards was he. Wish’d to be with them. Lay of the Last Minstrel. And he. See. 10 9 . for example. “Mr Wordsworth is the most original poet now living. Scott and Wordsworth offer—in their divergent approaches to oral problematics and literary poiesis—exemplary cases.
USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 139 Walter Scott’s best-selling Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) offers one spectacular example of the uses to which orality could be put. through his series of long narrative poems (The Lay of the Last Minstrel being only the first of several minstrelling romances). Such combat should be made on horse. He brook’d not. On foaming steed. when they the goblet plied. Or call his song untrue: For this. which in his case we might call the problematic of minstrelsy. the jovial Harper. in full career. In the course of The Lay. His corpus is a long meditation on the end. taught Me. other versions of it. of the defeat of traditionary Scottish culture: he is also the figure through whom Scott can both represent oral poiesis and chronicle its obsolescence. Consider. how he came to be fluent in it. From his first collection.” the minstrel is not only the figure of cultural obsolescence. that scoffing tongue Should tax his minstrelsy with wrong. for example. He knew each ordinance and clause Of Black Lord Archibauld’s battle-laws. Scott was the romantic writer who most thoroughly worked through and worked over the oral-poetic problematic. In guise which now I say. of minstrels. this passage near the end of canto 4. in all senses. in their lay. If Scott’s literary work both displayed and discussed what Stewart calls “the literary selfconsciousness of antiquarianism” (1994:25). . In the old Douglas’ day. With brand to aid. that. Full many minstrels sing and say. his work also revealed the historiographic and ethnographic self-consciousness of early nineteenthcentury literature. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). when the minstrel interrupts his account of the English and Scottish warriors’ agreement to abide by the results of single combat “on foot” (xxxiii): XXXIV. yet a youth. he. I know right well. As “last of all the bards. Scott took over from the antiquarians the reinvented minstrel—the professional transmitter of the oral-poetic tradition—and made him a historicizable mouthpiece. how it was fought. when as the spear Should shiver in the course: But he. Scott’s minstrel has several ostentatiously self-reflexive moments when he pauses to reflect on his song.
140 MAUREEN McLANE And such rude taunt had chafed his pride. . 4. For the minstrel.” His account is one among many. On Teviot’s side. This Lay also. his own teacher refused to tolerate “scoffing tongue[s].” 2.” The minstrel’s competitive spirit is as traditional as his lay: as he says. within a song-culture: “I know right well . yet his is the best. a saying of the same again. the minstrel implicitly acknowledges. . The Lay thus announces its commitment to praise and blame. allies a history of Scottish poetry—as much as Scottish history—with a warrior ethos and transparent masculinity.” 11 . full many minstrels sing and say.” his former student declares. Where still the thorn’s white branches wave. An unapologetic rivalry emerges clearly as the engine of minstrelsy. . and superior to. then.” The minstrel. whatever “many minstrels” may “sing and say. This past moment of learning is converted into the “now” of the minstrel’s saying: “In guise which now I say. Memorial o’er his rival’s grave. understands his lay as a re-creation of previous lays. there is no difference between historical and song traditions. apparently cheerfully. In the very next stanza. The minstrel’s participation in the competitive ethos of the warrior culture he celebrates: he trumpets his account as one different from. is over: the Gregory Nagy (1996:4) argues that the “mimesis” of oral performance should be understood as “dramatic re-enactment. The song tradition here as the historical tradition. and he foregrounds its transmission.” and quite readily “slew” bardic adversaries—The Bard of Reull. “the lay” of other minstrels.11 3. The minstrel’s ready reference to and insertion of himself within a community of song-makers. The minstrel’s representation of his narrative as a tradition learned from another: a “jovial Harper” “taught” him while “yet a youth. The Bard of Reull he slew. And tuneful hands were stain’d with blood. replete with martial specifics. . to rivalry and combat. If they claim “such combat should be made on horse.” The minstrel understands his lay. Among the features worth remarking in this passage: 1. and not incidentally. “Tuneful hands were stain’d with blood. however. in fight they stood. to competitive as well as communal making. of rivalrous making. his corpus. .” battling “hand to hand.” he insists that combatants met “on foot. the minstrel acknowledges that the romance of continuous transmission. to be an inherited one.
with envy heard before.” It is striking to see that signal Romantic lament—“And I. . with my minstrel brethren fled. How Ousenam’s maidens tore their hair. interiority. That dragg’d my master to his tomb. Why should I tell the rigid doom. If in himself the minstrel bears the mark of orality and indeed of the residual itself. Wept till their eyes were dead and dim. the triumph of print culture and. personhood. To the cold silent grave are gone. And grieve that I shall hear no more The strains. And wrung their hands for love of him. one by one.and warriorculture. the modern poet both imaginatively and materially remediates minstrelsy. that is. Who died at Jedwood Air? He died!—his scholars. taking it out of the mouths of singers and the realm of immediate audiences and into the domain of writing and manuscript or print circulation. alas! survive alone To muse o’er rivalries of yore. subjectivity. and its rivalrous ethos—an image the particulars of which contemporary oral theory seems to confirm. In presenting and representing minstrels. alas! survive alone”—emerge in this context. of the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. My jealousy of song is dead. mediums par excellence. moreover. Having his minstrel reflect on his cultural predicament. For. the literary representation of the minstrel depends upon his supercession.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 141 minstrel has outlasted his community. Minstrels. both literary and historiographic. song-culture. The lament for the “master” is also a lament for minstrel. The minstrel exists as an “I” only inasmuch as he emerges as one of a minstrel band. the end of productive rivalry: “my jealousy of song is dead. and the ascendancy of empire. Scott develops a theoretically informed and powerful image: that of a native-informant minstrel-maker who can report and meditate as it were “authentically” on oral poetry. And I. in the broadest cultural and political sense. lack individuality. the Romantic poet allowed himself to explore his proximity and distance from minstrel-making and minstrel-culture. The minstrel is inevitably a figure not only of the past or of the proleptically past but of the contemporary poet’s method. In writing minstrelsy. which had heretofore guaranteed the meaningful singing of his song: XXXV. they are the vectors of culture.
Canto I. Had done his hand and harp some wrong. The Duchess. his voice was clear. academics. and wand’ring long. Scott takes great pains to represent the oral poet’s embodied relation to the audience (notably marked as both noble and female). Scott creates a space for constituting. hesitantly begun and then ecstatically. Gave praises to his melody. consider the hapless minstrel at the end of his first “fitt” (end of Canto I. the Aged Man. On the poet’s concern for audience. differentiating. In such a passage. merchants. Somewhat he spoke of former days. in due degree. and farmers as well as aristocrats. diffident of present praise. italics mine): Here paused the harp. gazing timid on the crowd. in every eye. and her daughters fair. a relation in which face-to-face contact and immediate somatic feedback are the conditions of recitation and performance. and indeed historicizing the relation of poet-toaudience. If they approved his minstrelsy. oral or literary. of lawyers. And every gentle lady there. of learned as well as unlearned readers. destined for a literate audience of thousands—an audience of men as well as women. and low. performance is an arduous task.142 MAUREEN McLANE The Lay of the Last Minstrel is also a witty and yet disturbingly knowing meditation on virtually every anxiety of the poet. At the level of minstrel metaphorics. then. Scott thus marks the historical distance between the situation of the minstrel’s recitation and his own poem. And. whether ancient or modern. he bow’d. albeit erratically. His hand was true. . 84-100): Amid the strings his fingers stray’d. Each after each. of Englishmen as well as Scotsmen. again began. And oft he shook his hoary head. bound as it eventually was in printed books. For this minstrel. After meet rest. Encouraged thus. And. Dejectedly. continued (end of Introduction. doubling. and with its swell The Master’s fire and courage fell. And how old age. And an uncertain warbling made. He seemed to seek. And much they long’d the rest to hear.
and the introduction of whom betwixt the cantos. or frame. If the poem often condescends to this minstrel—“infirm and old. if we are silently reading the lay. The old man raised his face. through the medium of Scott’s own highly regulated measures. while his harp responsive rung. his wants. afterwards afforded the poem its name of ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’. were all forgot: Cold diffidence. for example. soft or strong. by whom the lay might be sung. And lighten’d up his faded eye. which might make readers aware of the object.” his intermittent depressions throughout the lay—casts a strange and ambiguous halo over the poem. finally catching “the measure wild. With all a poet’s ecstasy! In varying cadence. His toils. 143 Scott’s intense focus on the minstrel’s activity—his tuning up. his physical movements. his “ecstasy. of the time. his “uncertain warbling. and circumstances of the recitation.” at various dynamics (“soft or strong”). . see his “Introduction to ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’” (1830:315): “I entirely agreed with my friendly critic in the necessity of having some sort of pitch-pipe. whom Scott tells us he introduced as a “prolocutor” or “pitch-pipe” meant to help modern readers more easily swallow the legendary stuff of the poem. audible voice. on a kind of poetic filter. characteristically. place. the future lot. ‘Twas thus the Latest Minstrel sung. In the full tide of song were lost. his playing. and age’s frost. .USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART But when he caught the measure wild. of the publication. however. or rather the tone. the passage immediately above) and a variable ballad stanza for For Scott’s decision to use the minstrel as a framing device. as an appropriate prolocutor.” his anxious consciousness of the audience. The present scene. and smiled.” 12 . cast in writing and ultimately print. He swept the sounding chords along. I therefore introduced the figure of the Old Minstrel. a constitutive mediation: Scott represents the minstrel’s strumming “in varying cadence. The poet’s glowing thought supplied.” Such a picture emerges. . unaccompanied by harp or even. We note as well that Scott differentiates his own framing narration from the minstrel’s recitation by means of meter: he uses the octosyllabic “minstrel couplet” in the framing passages (see.12 Such a passage relies. Each blank in faithless memory void. in a more or less standard English. might remind the reader at intervals. And. or spoken.” barely able to get his harp tuned and his measures flowing—nevertheless the poem ultimately articulates its primary narrative content through this decrepit figure. This species of cadre.
14 On analyzing literary works as “cases. if any. ch. from this angle. and the cultural conditions of the poet. On the level of metrics. the time of successive editions. the minstrel offers a parable of the modern poet’s imminent obsolescence. on the level of poetic representation. that is. the historicity of poetry and its mediations. the poem tells. what James Chandler would have us call his “case”:14 See Bakhtin (1981).” see Chandler 1998:espec. Scott’s Lay vividly enacts what it encodes—to wit. Simultaneously historicizing the minstrel and analogizing with him. between these narratological temporalities. as well as a meta-narrative of historical change. his account of his master’s death). Scott both borrows from minstrelsy (using its characteristic couplet form) and differentiates himself from it (having his minstrel recite in another meter). supernatural interventions. practices clearly marked as oral poiesis. If The Lay contains a narrative about border feuds. Scott’s historiographically informed poetry develops chronotopical complexities that anticipate those of his historical novels. Characteristic of Scott’s minstrelsy is its orchestration of several temporalities: the “now” of narrration. and psychohistorical senses of the term “case. the distance. the problem of the chronotope of poiesis—“chronotope” used here. the “then” within the narrative present.13 If the minstrel is the medium of the lay. and romance triumphant. as both like and unlike Scott. and so on. 4. The minstrel. 13 . Scott’s confident authority depends precisely on our not taking the minstrel as the proper analogue for the modern poet.” in the full casuistical. nevertheless he also raises the inevitable specter of the minstrel as his own double. Scott’s representation of the minstrel as medium authorizes the lay precisely by historicizing his situation. the time of notes and addenda. the time of composition. If Scott’s conspicuous fluency differentiates him from the minstrel. grammatical. the time of any framing narration. effortful recitation and Scott’s confident handling of it. yet another story: that of the disjunction between the minstrel’s hesitant. offered him a multivalent figure to think with and through. who observes that “it is precisely the chronotope that defines genre and generic distinctions. in Bakhtin’s sense. Singing on the edge of an abyss (his “date was fled”). then. for in literature the primary category in the chronotope is time” (85). The Lay of the Last Minstrel is predicated on a trope of simultaneously conjunctive and disjunctive analogy. the time of revision. Scott emerges as a particular kind of poet in The Lay—a poet who makes poetry out of historically obsolete and yet picturesque poetic practices. to mean the constitutive configuration of space and time within a literary work as well as the time-space relationships generated between the work and its compositional context.144 MAUREEN McLANE the minstrel’s own recitation (see. The oral problematic of minstrelsy is. for example.
a lay about him. and ours—find such alternately lugubrious and pugnacious renderings of the end of minstrels and of Scottish local culture to be. Who sung of Border chivalry. Inasmuch as the lay is his lay. is exactly what constitutes the space of recitation in The Lay.” the chronotope of a hazily but decidedly past past in a ruined. and perhaps the only lay the last minstrel now possesses. It is history or tradition in masquerade. 145 This trope of the fled “date. and that the noble ethos of poetic competition has faded: “my jealousy of song is dead. what an excellent mimic is to a great actor” (1930:155). consider the following: “there is a modern air in the midst of the antiquarian research of Mr Scott’s poetry. in his Border Minstrelsy. a placed saturated by the traumatic marks of time.” or dead. He has just hit the town between the romantic and the fashionable. It is impossible to avoid the question of the good faith of such a representation. one would wish to explore thoroughly his multivalent responses to and uses of the oral-poetic traditions he himself declared were dying off. and lore. he also showed himself. to be a passionate. For welladay! their date was fled.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART The last of all the Bards was he.” this rather doleful specimen sings a lay that is doubly “of the Last Minstrel”—a lay sung by him but also. The minstrel’s pathos resides in his being residual.15 Yet if Scott ventriloquized oral poetry in The Lay. . In a word. he laments within his narration that his brethren are all dead. part of his minstrel-stock. slick appropriation. I conceive that he is to the great poet. a masquerade capitalizing on shallow nostalgia while sating the public’s lust for picturesque sentiment. a canny. notably William Hazlitt. at best. “fled. and between the two. In a fuller investigation of Scott’s romantic orality. For a sample of Hazlitt’s criticism.” Remembering days when he used to pour out “to lord and lady gay. secured all classes of readers on his side. rigorous advocate and preserver of its cultural value and poetic richness. 15 . .” The minstrel is himself conscious of his fled date: as we have seen. manners. his date “fled. and many critics—both Scott’s contemporaries. by virtue of Scott’s astonishing poetic and historiographic fluencies. The punning condensation in the preposition “of” offers an allegory in miniature of Scott’s interest in the pre-position of the poet. the lay of the last minstrel is “of” him in yet a third sense. haunted place. / The unpremeditated lay. . in the poet’s case.
17-32): Will no one tell me what she sings? Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow For old. 11. or pain.” and enjoining us to do so as well. Manning’s elegant. Of “The Solitary Reaper. Manning 1990:ch.16 That a poem presenting a personally experienced. as I mounted up the hill. and may be again? Whate’er the theme. loss. Tour in Scotland written by a Friend. Wordsworth approached the question of oral-poetic problematics from another angle. Long after it was heard no more. “The Solitary Reaper. trenchant essay offers a historicist corrective to and complication of Geoffrey Hartman’s previously dominant reading of the poem as another Wordsworthian movement of consciousness. Such stanzas may be read as Wordsworth’s astonishingly economical and lovely engagement with Romantic orality. And o’er the sickle bending. with minstrelsy a vehicle for a picturesque rendering of cultural history.146 MAUREEN McLANE Mediating Orality: Wordsworth’s Close Encounters of an Oral Kind If Scott rendered oral recitation as pageant and spectacle. That has been.” Wordsworth remarked. unhappy. Thanks to Ann Rowland for referring me to Manning’s essay. Tours to the British Mountains. “This Poem was suggested by a beautiful sentence in a MS. Wordsworth worked up this poem not from an actual encounter recalled from his and Dorothy’s 1803 tour of Scotland.” Beholding “yon solitary Highland Lass. Wordsworth in the third stanza bursts forth impatiently (1946:77. the Maiden sang As if her song could have no ending. the last line being taken from it verbatim.— I listened till I had my fill. And battles long ago: Or is it some more humble lay. The music in my heart I bore. consider one of Wordsworth’s best-known poems. but Wordsworth often made oral-literate transactions the very “matter” of his poetry. far-off things. Familiar matter of today? Some natural sorrow. Scott largely confined his reflections on the use of orality to his notes and commentary. ll. And. but more directly from “a beautiful sentence” in his friend Thomas Wilkinson’s manuscript. I saw her singing at her work. As Peter Manning has reminded us.” See his note to the poem in Curtis 16 . For an illuminating distillation of the historical and material distances that oral poetry could travel.
/ And battles long ago”. 12]. The poetic economy here. for years before it was published. 18 17 . as an obfuscated appropriation of a friend’s manuscript). familiar matter of today. workers’.18 a tale of “old unhappy. the passage reads: ‘Passed a female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle. far-off things. or Highlanders’ oral poetry (or. news that. the song may be a “more humble lay. and imitations of these compositions by modern authors. material and metaphorical. but on the other hand.17 If the poem lends itself to readings as a romantic expropriation of women’s. may be repeated in the future—she may well be singing of “pain / That has been. Wordsworth’s eroticizing of her. and may be again!” The ballad chronotope—the space-time configuration of oral poiesis—here emerges as temporally extensive (from “long ago” to a 1983:415: Curtis identifies the friend as Thomas Wilkinson. it also offers us the chance to read it as a melancholy methodological inquiry.” his unrepresented transformation of source materials in generating a lyric of represented spontaneity. 1824) circulated among friends in MS. and felt delicious. his focus on her song as his pleasure.” A fuller account of this poem would have much to say about the exoticism of the Highland girl. For a minutely detailed and impassioned account of the class politics of folksong.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 147 unmediated (if vexing) overhearing of oral lyric had its origins in—and drew its closing line from—another tourist’s written document only begins to suggest the always already fictive and “written” nature of “oral” encounters as they appear in Romantic poetry (not to mention the textually mediated vision of all eighteenth. his taking of his “fill” at the expense of “her work. Wordsworth’s source reports—but in this temporal ambiguity: the ballad may gesture back to time immemorial or may equally commemorate “today’s” news. ballad. “Will no one tell me what she sings?” propels a set of provisional responses and meditations on ballad genres: “what she sings” may be a “historical ballad” (to invoke Scott’s taxonomy). in a less sinister gloss. Critics such as Dave Harker have made us especially alert to the appropriations and expropriations of workers’ culture by non-laboring literati.” The mysteriousness of the song lies not only in its linguistic inaccessibility—the Highland lass sang in Erse (Scottish Gaelic).and nineteenth-century tourists). the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy. and adds that his “Tours to the British Mountains (London. moreover. and so on. is obviously rich and potentially disquieting. In Scott’s “Introduction” to Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1830:36) he identifies the “three classes of poems” included in his collection: historical ballads. see Harker 1985. romantic ballads. long after they were heard no more’ [p. The almost absurd question.
communal inheritance—an inheritance. his is a professional recitation bespeaking years of training and specialization. see Bronson 1959:ix: “ Question: When is a ballad not a ballad? Answer: When it has no tune. of a rooted human community in its full temporal extension. That she sings. The reaper’s “song” becomes. of song culture. unprofessional. have also enunciated: that a ballad is a ballad only when it has a tune. the one that gives him terrible pause. of course.” solitary as the tree in the Immortality Ode. represented as inaccessible—or. Wordsworth’s lass seems to know her song as it were unconsciously: her work is reaping. as a performance in print of transformed and ostentatiously imperfect transmission. notably. The tune carries. he cannot know. perhaps nostalgic. most notably Bertrand Harris Bronson.” 19 . it was Wordsworth’s frequent strategy to meditate on the universal human through such “exotic” or “marginal” figures. The poem explicitly offers a splitting between music and meaning.” she is hardly individuated: Wordsworth is less interested in the oral poet than in oral poetry.148 MAUREEN McLANE possible future “again”) but spatially restrictive: Wordsworth offers in the Highland singer an image of a traditional culture recreating itself over time. the explicit cultural formation. Note that Scott’s minstrel has no expectation that any of his audience will go out and repeat his lay. Wordsworth in “The Solitary Reaper” seems to anticipate an insight that later theorists. and her song comes unbidden. That such a community appears in the highly marked regional figure of a Highland lass should not obscure the general point of Wordsworth’s inquiry. Scott emphasizes the institutional situation. not singing. In terms of ballad poiesis.” The poem traces an allegory of translation and textualization but also of For a version of this dictum. sung for none other (she thinks) than herself. the “matter. it is the image. as only partially accessible—to Wordsworth. song as a popular. he appreciates.19 “The Solitary Reaper” may be seen. then. song-transmission. It is of course striking and characteristically Wordsworthian that she be “single in the field. what she sings. “Solitary Reaper”: sung song becomes artifact. between measures and melody on the one hand—her “plaintive numbers”—and the verbal and thematic content of her words. to be more precise. the semantic import does not. Wordsworth’s poem. Despite her being “single. Wordsworth finds in this song an occasion for meditating on the ambiguities of song. If Scott’s minstrel emphasizes the work of learning his lay. and song-matter. The Highland lass shows us another aspect of oral poetry. Oral poetry here emerges not as the province of trained professional rivals (pace Scott’s minstrel corps) but rather as that haunting song that drifts through and between individuals. from time immemorial.
as it were. not her music but his. abjure. It is striking that Wordsworth focuses most on the poet’s preoccupation. perhaps inadvertently. and individuals who produce it? Wordsworth’s “as if” delicately places the pivot of the poem between perpetual presence (the time of singing. the impasse between the reaping singer and the walking poet persists. The poem offers us. we recognize in them a haunting by questions raised by oral poiesis. This representation of listening and his insistence that we listen—“O listen!”—create an immediacy and a contemporaneity that Scott’s poems. Wordsworth leaves “the Vale profound” (ll.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 149 dispersal: she sings “as if her song could have no ending. a rebuke to fantasies of transparency and unobstructed mediation. he notably swerves from ventriloquizing the lass. with “the matter”. Perhaps. The music in my heart I bore. Wordsworth’s poems are often not so much poems about poetry as poems about the complex encounters between oral and literary poiesis. professions.” having proposed possible answers. with their scrupulously historicizing spectacle.” Is this not the dream of poetry. Long after it was heard no more. of course. the sung “now”) and inevitable passing. as I mounted up the hill. preferring to emblazon her figure and to rechannel her music into his lines. given the frequency with which oral communications become the stuff of Wordsworthian lyrics—with their enunciators witting or unwitting providers of “matter”—we should both revisit and revise the New Critical dictum. Having asked “what she sings. Yet it is appropriate that. His most compact and penetrating exploration of oral-literate complexities—particularly those inhering in problems of textual mediation—may be found in the lyric he wrote as if to preface Macpherson’s Ossian poems. however different these poems. and of those cultures. . the most vexed and famous orally based texts of the period. The pathos of this encounter is figured. 3032): And. not her matter but his reflections on the indeterminacy of the song’s matter. in Wordsworth’s closing couplet.
mediating practices: translating. particularly poetry that exists. over Scott’s later use of Coleridge’s “Christabel. What has been left “blank” by Macpherson’s Ossian will be written in and over. With ear not coveting the whole. for example. on a mountain height Loose vapours have I watched. only in “fragments. ll. that won Prismatic colours from the sun. of these finished strains? Away with counterfeit remains! Wordsworth naturalizes the process by which we receive poetry. that the poem was in a sense always pre-textualized. The major literary debates and scandals of the period—over the authenticity of Macpherson’s Ossian poems. Wordsworth begins by offering natural similes as figures for poetic reception (1947:38. What need. Nor felt a wish that Heaven would show The image of its perfect bow. Wordsworth’s poem. and indeed. The poem may be read as a commentary on the Ossian problematic.” proposes in its title that Wordsworth’s “lines” be taken as a continuation of as well as a supplement to Macpherson’s work. 1-12): Oft have I caught. Whether displayed or occluded. what we know and what Wordsworth later acknowledged. such textualizing operations were. “Written on a Blank Leaf of Macpherson’s Ossian. of course.” from which he derived license for his metrical and rhyming variousness and some lines in The Lay of the Last Minstrel—revolved around questions of textualization and other appropriative. while “the whole” stands uncoveted. The “fragment” here is positively valued. . like Ossian’s.150 MAUREEN McLANE Binding Mediations and Orality Redux: Wordsworth’s Ossian Unbound “The Solitary Reaper” shows Wordsworth thinking about the textualization he represents himself as enacting. plagiarizing. practices central to Romantic traffic with the oral. and forging. upon a fitful breeze.” Figuring the reception of poetic “fragments” as a kind of overhearing of “far-off melodies. editing. a manuscript its muse. which Wordsworth astutely diagnoses as a problematic of poetry itself. We might also bear in mind. A part so charmed the pensive soul: While a dark storm before my sight Was yielding. as a further complication. Fragments of far-off melodies.” Wordsworth hovers between oral/aural and literate “strains” of poetry. then.
in Wordsworth’s opinion. In concert with memorial claim Of old gray stone. Wordsworth pits an ethic and a poetic of the authentic fragment against. Wordsworth tellingly reverses the operation of textualization to which Macpherson had subjected Ossian: we might say that. who boldly invokes Ossian as poet. In his apostrophe—“Spirit of Ossian!”—Wordsworth reopens the question of Ossian. Macpherson. mysterious. having refused to name his translator/mediator (ibid. stern arbitress of all. And for presumptuous wrongs atone. 17-30): Spirit of Ossian! if imbound In language thou may’st yet be found. Wordsworth shows himself thinking through—in incredibly concentrated lines—the oral-literate problematic that the Ossian controversy made into a famously debatable topic. Albeit shattered and impaired) Subsist thy dignity to guard. and yet authentic core. that is. Let Truth. through Macpherson’s “translations. That cleaves to rock or pillared cave. as if peeling away the “counterfeit” layers to reach the ineffable. Authentic words be given. continue to intrigue Wordsworth. Having dispensed with . ll. Wordsworth deftly represents several layers of mediation. in literary history—as “counterfeit remains. That there might be a fragment or partial remain of Ossian does. If aught (intrusted to the pen Or floating on the tongues of men. in spiritualizing Ossian. presenting them in reverse order. and high-born name. or none! In this central movement of the poem.:38-39. a revivification.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 151 In this astonishingly modulated and understated simile. Where moans the blast or beats the wave. rendering him a presence in nature. Interpret that original. “counterfeit remains” (akin to the unsought rainbow). with a difference.” Wordsworth’s apostrophe to Ossian’s spirit is a kind of disinterral. Macpherson’s “finished strains” appear in rhyme as they did. Conjuring and appealing to his presence in a significantly conditional clause (“if imbound / In language thou may’st yet be found”).” It is telling that the counterfeiter here. He stringently dissociates the “spirit of Ossian” from the texts through which he supposedly is heard. Wordsworth imaginatively reoralizes Ossian. however. remains unnamed—as if he shall remain nameless. in a richly suggestive phrase.
. yet perhaps Wordsworth might have been satisfied by faithfully edited. Mute as a Lark ere morning’s birth.152 MAUREEN McLANE Macpherson’s “finished strains. of poetry. One wonders how exactly one might ascertain the authenticity of “authentic words”: original Ossianic words. In the first movement of the poem. not only on “authentic words” but also on the state of men’s tongues and the reliability of human mediations. that Ossian serves as a case for lost poetry in general (ibid.” The uncertainty of reference in this last apposition raises an intriguing question: is it the “tongues of men” that are “shattered and impaired. would be Gaelic. the driving pulse. / Albeit shattered and impaired. even aside from Macpherson. it is. Is. could they be found or reconstructed. stationed with his lyre Supreme among the Elysian quire. It is notable that language itself appears here as a binding. linguistic mediation of poetic spirit.” Wordsworth further problematizes the question of any access to Ossian “in language.” whether in oral or written form. The “spirit” appears as the raw material.:39. the obscuring of what may yet actually “subsist. a problem of mediation. 37-42): No tongue is able to rehearse One measure. Musaeus. it may be “imbound / in language”—this is the first. Wordsworth traces very efficiently a romantic economy of poetic mediation and realization.” or the paltry “aught” (anything) one might still find. or indeed the “Spirit of Ossian” perhaps found “floating” there that is shattered? The question of Ossian hinges. Wordsworth strenuously criticizes the distortions engendered by our longing for artifactual “wholes”—for “finished strains. Orpheus! of thy verse. for the dwellers upon earth. as options. then. ll.” He recognizes that the problem of Ossian is. fragmentary Ossianic translations. in a rapid parenthetical. as one rounds through the poem’s arc. he offers both. ascending up several layers of artifactualization. Wordsworth privileges neither mode of transmission or fixing. in which case “authentic words” would still be heavily mediated ones. rather. It becomes apparent. this linguistic binding may be rendered orally (in the “tongues of men”) or may be textualized (“intrusted to the pen”).” But we see that it is not the writing of oral poetry that vexes Wordsworth. a medium. To consider whether Ossian “may’st yet be found” leads one to wonder whether he might be “intrusted to the pen / Or floating on the tongues of men.
Musaeus. unnamed human and poetic losses: “[T]housands. Yet Wordsworth’s catalogue of lost beauties leads him to a surprising interrogation (idem: ll. and Orpheus. . for example. a winsome singer.” and. dignified past that fueled Macpherson. though past away The Music. this longing—however profound—should not.” Only their names persist. or musics—over vaster. 43-44): Why grieve for these. we have names and not works. . as well as Percy and Scott. though past away The Music. 43-47): Why grieve for these. more importantly. Note that here Wordsworth explores the oral-poetic problematic as a problem not so much of authorship or source as of poetic work.” The poem then becomes a homage to and invocation of “Bards of mightier grasp!”—the “chosen few” who persisted. be indulged. he poses the crux of his critique as a question. albeit differently inflected. responses. In the case of Ossian. / Full early to the silent tomb / Have sunk. according to this poem. Here. but no “original source. origins but no surviving poetic destinations. no problem of origination. Wordsworth both diagnoses the melancholy and longing that fueled the antiquarian/historicist project and counterprescribes for it. most specifically the mediating work of cultural transmission. no longer “rehearsable. by severer doom.” where the “author” of the lass’s song—like those of most Anglo-Scots and Gaelic ballads—is presumably anonymous. by severer doom. in their . Here he foregrounds a different issue than he did. unsung. why grieve? To this Percy and Macpherson and Scott could have given extended. If it was the desire to provide a national epic and a heroic. indeed. In this remarkable passage Wordsworth moves beyond his stern critique of counterfeiting and false finishing to criticize the psychocultural impulses propelling that bad project. at Nature’s call. and extinct the Lay? When thousands. and extinct the Lay? Well. for this is truly an interrogation of the “griefs” that lead men to create bad “memorials” (ll. Again. in “Solitary Reaper. poems. Full early to the silent tomb Have sunk. however. Yet Wordsworth objects to the emotional economy of antiquarian grief precisely because such grief privileges and fetishizes lost rarities—whether poets.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 153 Ossian is thus the latest in a long line of poets whose “verses” are lost. . with stunning economy. lost in the mists of time: Wordsworth there confronts a mysterious song.
in the least distinguished. No succeeding writer appears to have caught from them a ray of inspiration. ll. haply. Yet this Ossian. to the fountain head Of Glory by Urania led! In these closing lines. Even in these last lines Wordsworth keeps us alert to the problem of mediation: the final turn to Ossian—the “Son of Fingal”—is a conspicuously mediated apparition. 75-82): Such.154 MAUREEN McLANE vocation. with the shadowy image of the barely and imperfectly mediated poet. we might add. on Morven’s lonely shore. proposing him as spiritual forebear rather than as fragmentary text.:40. / Dim-gleaming through imperfect lore. Wordsworth analogizes (ibid. or tamed by grief. on their first appearance. oral or not.” See Wordsworth’s extraordinary attack (1974:78): “Yet. and textualization are the cruces of this poem.20 Again. no author. Wordsworth rounds back to the Ossian problematic that underlies the whole and provides a reconstructed poetic genealogy for British poetry. Appears.” Not Ossian’s fragments but his spirit. however shattered and impaired. is the poetically powerful Ossian. Converting Ossian into a muse rather than a source. whose influence he would elsewhere furiously and improbably deny. verifiable existence but his continued fame preserved and sustained through “imperfect lore”: Wordsworth ends his lines here. what is remarkable here is not only the turn to Ossian. not his historical. has ventured formally to imitate them—except the boy. Such Milton. much as those pretended treasures of antiquity [Macpherson’s Ossian poems] have been admired. to the rugged Chief By fortune crushed. Chatterton. Dim-gleaming through imperfect lore. Ossian is reclaimed and inserted into an ascending pantheon of poets whom Wordsworth addresses as his “Brothers in Soul!” In soul. In the closing lines of the poem. He “appears. such was blind Maeonides of ampler mind. Transmission. and more broadly for any poet intent on a rigorous engagement with dubious but compelling “remains.” 20 . and to the oral-literate problematic surrounding his purported works. The Son of Fingal. Imagining poets in all ages and climes comforting their fellow men. but not in textual body. but the terms and lines through which Wordsworth thinks and renders that problematic. Wordsworth reaches an uneasy reconciliation with Ossian. they have been wholly uninfluential upon the literature of the Country. on Morven’s lonely shore.
especially for poets like Wordsworth who often employed vatic strains.” sung by trained minstrels to Scottish aristocrats. were often taken “from the mouths” of contemporary singers and reciters. Was oral poetry dead? If “oral poetry” meant “minstrelsy. without mediation. that it developed a poetics of the fragment. “tongues of men. the question has no one answer: for Scott. then no. But perhaps we could refine these propositions by considering them.” as Scott has it in the “Introduction to Popular Poetry” prefacing his Border Minstrelsy. there was a vital continuity from his edition of The Border Minstrelsy to his first “original work. oral poetry was not at all dead: the contents of the Minstrelsy. representing orality required a confrontation with the cultural situation and historicity of poetry. and indeed no poetry. on binding mediations. With their qualifications and clarifications.” Ossian. as in Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. Orality Interminable: The Oral Turn in Contemporary Poetry Representing orality means theorizing orality. All poetry depends. of unimpeded inspiration—“Spirit of Ossian!”—that Wordsworth most cannily argues his point: no poetry without mediation. Wordsworth’s lines scrupulously enact the difficulty we have in “getting. that it was preoccupied with notions of “spirit” and transcendence. that it privileged a discourse of inspiration over imitation. . as it were. We also see that the invocation of Spirit is no transparent operation: the apostrophe—perhaps the stereotypical Romantic trope (O wild west wind. immersed in as well as cultivating and commodifying Border song-culture. whether oral or literate. we see that his commitment to the fragment rests on a complex theorization of literate mediations of the oral as well as on a nod to ongoing oral mediations (e. In a stunning paradox. it is through the rhetoric of immediate access. For Romantic literary poets. If “oral poetry” meant “popular poetry.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 155 Such a poem allows us to rethink certain critical insights about Romanticism: for example. . in an oral key: in such a poem as Wordsworth’s on Ossian. possible preservation by tongues or pen). then yes.” the Lay of the Last Minstrel. One can only discriminate among kinds of mediation and kinds of remains (“counterfeit” or authentic). O Derwent.”) and parenthetical options (e.g.g. however regrettably. Scott frequently notes. and so on)—immediately propels a conditional clause (“if imbound .. Yet Scott’s relation to Border . Was oral poetry a viable inheritance for literate poets? Again.” “imperfect lore”). These general propositions seem true enough.” not to mention “getting to. Wordsworth’s poem allows us to see that there is no Ossian.
even as he strains to transcend it: as he asks. or the songs their grandfathers knew. however different their poems. ironizing. literate. as critics have on the front page of The New York Times. Thomas Moore. which from one angle seemed decidedly past. On the question of viable encounters with orality. the naive.” and did so by reviving and reworking what they saw as the old. and yet from another was everywhere around them.” 200-16) and Ron Silliman (“Afterword: Who Speaks: Ventriloquism and the Self in the Poetry of Reading. in the popular ballads they knew from childhood. This paradoxical movement. its focus on mediation—inaugurated a long imaginative exchange that we are still witnessing. in Ezra Pound’s words.” 360-78).21 We can debate.156 MAUREEN McLANE lore and Border poetry may be read. It is striking that. cultural. moreover. of literary revivification through the romance of orality. or educational—between the modern. Particularly relevant to this discussion are the contributions of Bob Perelman (“Speech Effects: The Talk as a Genre. publishing poet and what he represents as his oral contemporaries. The drama of Wordsworth’s poems often arises from his represented recognition of just such a barrier. its exploration of song-culture and traditional forms like the ballad. Among the traditional things ready for reworking was oral poetry. or tunes sung by their nurses. to borrow terms from Schiller. aims. leaving aside that revealingly vexed and racialized controversy. the traditional. His poems offer a savoring of such impasse. we find in the heart of high-cultural For an excellent recent collection of essays discussing poetry. concerning the Highland lass’s enigmatic song: “will no one tell me what she sings?” I would argue that the romantic encounter with orality—its complex representations of and debts to oral poetry. and Samuel Taylor Coleridge understood their balladry to be both innovations and interventions in what they saw as a moribund poetic state. performance. to “make it new. the popular. historicizing hand and voice. its privileging of ethnographic authority as a poetic resource. Wordsworth’s work also reveals a profound recognition of a barrier—whether linguistic. 21 . see Bernstein 1998. whether rap is poetry. Their work presents the by now familiarly paradoxical face of many modern literary movements: they strove. and commitments. albeit in newly mediated forms. poets as diverse as Scott. Conspicuous in Scott’s works are his mediating. or tales carried in the minds of vagrants they might encounter on the public way. and the cultural and linguistic politics of contemporary poiesis. persists in contemporary experimental poetry. Wordsworth. as a relation of the sentimental to the naïve.
to perform. . confessional poem. David Antin. his pieces are intriguing examples of a reconstructed orality used to jump-start contemporary poetry. and to be open to the occasion. an art form that involves opsis: it establishes a unique relationship between artist and audience. jazz improvisation. is unmediated by books. Perloff reads Antin’s exploratory poiesis as specially engaged with “opsis. extremely self-reflexive in his pieces. . has set himself the task of becoming a postliterate performance poet. by definition. meditating explicitly on his compositional choices and the stakes of his poetic gambits.” 22 . with no prepared text. he claims. print. Antin gestures explicitly to the audience. for example. is. just the readiness to talk. a truly improvisational poet who comes to events. and obsessional diatribe. In his introduction to “a public occasion in a private place.22 Antin is.” that is. text.” published in Postmodern American Poetry. moreover. an occasion that. see Perloff 1981.): For an illuminating discussion of Antin and the stakes of his work. with spectacle (289): “Performance . or writing (1994:231): i consider myself a poet but im not reading poetry as you see i bring no books with me thought ive written books i have a funny relationship to the idea of reading if you cant hear i would appreciate it if youd come closer Swerving here from “the idea of reading” to the problem of hearing.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 157 American poetry a telling turn toward the oral and toward theories of the oral. This gesture is both an interactive solicitation—a thing said to the audience concerning the audience—and a theoretical proposition (ibid. free association. a reading in which “reading” becomes the name not for the practice of reading out words from books or manuscripts but rather for the occasion itself. Evoking aspects of comic monologue. Antin notes that he had been called to do a reading (1994:230): i had to explain that i wasn’t doing any reading any more or not at that time anyway that i went to a place and talked to an occasion and that was the only kind of poetry i was doing now but if that was all right with them id like to read with jackson maclow Antin thus announces a reading involving no reading. he proudly declares in his opening lines.
revising the contract as he names it (idem:236): . who revels in paradox. in silence. And we can see that.” Antin goes so far as to announce the death of all poetry that is not.” Antin has undertaken as a kind of meta-performance poetry a poiesis obviously informed by a deep literary sophistication that nevertheless privileges—or claims to privilege—the “composition-in-performance” one associates with oral poetry. . as he claims his is. to be sure. Antin explores the social situation of poetry. Antin’s poiesis is obviously a highly sophisticated meditation on poiesis as well as an apparently free-form “talk. page-bound communications read alone. bourgeois conception of poetry. youre here at a private experience in a public place its what one expects of a poet isn’t it? Antin’s semi-serious characterization of poetry as a typically “private experience” relies on a literate. the “saying of the same again” of traditional oral poetry: his works are not re-creations but rather one-timeonly improvisations. The contradictions of Antin’s project are obvious. this extreme pronouncement he then quickly and characteristically reworks (idem:234): ive said you cant possibly make a poem that isnt a complete improvisation say or something like that and then i figured as soon as i said it a week later i made exactly the opposite kind of poem because as soon as you take a position very forcefully youre immediately at the boundary of that position Antin constantly invokes the implicit contract between poet and audience. its “place. written. literary.158 MAUREEN McLANE i came here in order to make a poem talking to talk a poem which it will be other things being equal all “To make a poem” is now “to talk a poem”. . literary-minded peers. Antin also embraces—notwithstanding his avoidance of conventional capitalization and punctuation—the same means of mediation and transmission as his more text-oriented. “complete improvisation”. what he is doing is making as he goes. Using oral performance to confound the literate conventions associated with poetic experience.” its status as “private” or “public. in which poems are imagined as intimate. and not least to Antin. . on his feet. in private. Antin’s performance poetry is not. by allowing the printing and anthologizing of transcriptions of his poem-talks. Yet however much he has recourse to the oral.
23 Just as our understanding of oral poetry and performance has been illuminated by the conversation between philologists and anthropologists. even coerced.” first presented in 1977. and for the disappearance of the distinction between artist and audience.” the collective. for an emphasis on process over product. New Visions: Some Notes Toward a Poetics of Performance. the vision—has shifted: away from a “great tradition” centered in a single stream of art and literature in the West. postmodern poetic practice free from literary constraints (640): The model—or better. Rothenberg calls for the dissolution of the artwork. say. “New Models. It is by now a cliché that such avant-garde announcements of the death of art and literature are accompanied by an exaltation of the “primitive. he notes. preliterate and oral cultures throughout the world. with a sense of their connection to subterranean but literate traditions in civilizations both East and West. styling his new-modeled poet as a post-literate. as we can in eighteenth-century writing. on the part of the Native American militant. to a greater tradition that includes. for the poet and artist. 23 .USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 159 For another exploration of the contemporary uses of orality. no different from that to anthropology. Rothenberg. Further quotations from the essay will be cited in text from this source. we might look at Jerome Rothenberg’s manifesto. The antagonism to literature and to criticism is. Outlining this new paradigm. what is important here is Rothenberg’s telling impulse to find in the “tribal/oral” an alternative to Western high-cultural models of art-making. the oral. We observe here. for example. notably Victor Turner. Again. a characteristic blurring of these Now published in Hoover 1994:640-44. “the tribal/oral is a particularly clear model.” the postmoderns continue to find it compelling. But in addition the poet-as-informant stands in the same relation to those who speak of poetry or art from outside the sphere of its making as do any of the world’s aboriginals. so too we see Rothenberg turning to anthropologists of ritual. audience participation toward an ultimate democratization of the arts” (643). often referred to by the creators of 1960s happenings and the theatrical pieces that invited. If it was the Romantics who first conceptualized the idea of “poet-asinformant. more important for our purposes. sometimes as its central fact. in an attempt to imagine a new. On this last point. native informant (644): The model switch is here apparent. volatile analogy in the closing paragraphs of his essay. and. makes a polemical. It is a question in short of the right to self-definition.
for these poets. and the democratization of culture. or Alan Lomax? What is notable. at a particular moment in the late 1970s: yet his manifesto has clearly become a synecdoche for those interested in constructing a postmodern canon. of course. Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry. 24 . elitism. perfected. translator. however quixotic such a venture may be. and peoples. whom we almost inevitably approach from the literate. It Among his many contributions.” Rothenberg is focusing here on poetics. to a new consideration of performance. In his great drive to liberate artists from the shackles of convention. and commodification. should oral poets have been wary.24 poetics for him merges into the making of culture. Europe and Oceania (1985). the romance of orality has proven to be surprisingly resilient. replicable artifact. say. his rhetoric ultimately lapses in its grotesque elision of actual aboriginal and Native American claims. communitarian societies and ritual practices. even more than their romantic forebears. Many of us—scholars. And Rothenberg has been for decades a prominent and hugely influential compiler. and an important recent anthology. As this necessarily brisk survey suggests. Such an extended. co-edited with Pierre Joris: Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry (Rothenberg and Joris 1995-98). Rothenberg turns to his fantasy of precapitalist. Asia. poetries. persisting through the birth of new media and the concomitant reorganization of old. capitalized side of the oral/literate boundary. are Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa. anthologist. language. analogy reveals how politically and ethically problematic the turn to the oral can be. critics. alongside his own volumes of poetry. Postmodern poets.160 MAUREEN McLANE terms into one another. America. is the continuation of the romance of orality in this manifesto housed within the typeset. invoke orality as a mode of critique: it reveals what most prevailing poetry is not. for our purposes. disquieting issue for students and theorists of so-called oral cultures. of Milman Parry. histories. it shows the way. In doing so. and advocate of various world poetries and alternative poetics. and poets—long ago internalized a concept of poetry founded on the hegemony of print and the ideal of the fixed. One could discuss such moments in this and other essays under the title “On the Use and Abuse of the Oral Native for Art. what it lacks. thereby involving art-making in a political and ethical project. critical apparatus. if confused. mass-produced pages of Postmodern American Poetry. and predicaments. what it needs. and relation to audience. If natives should be wary of anthropologists. But Rothenberg’s analogy raises an interesting. 1914-1945 (1974).
W. Vol. by Paul Hoover. Ed. Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word.25 Whether oral or literate or hovering in the twilight zone between the two. Oxford: Oxford University Press. poetry has always been. In The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. ed. M. Bakhtin. Celeste Langan for sharing her stimulating work on Walter Scott (2001). 25 . Bakhtin 1981 Bernstein 1998 Bronson 1959 Ong discusses “secondary orality” (as opposed to the “primary orality” of peoples untouched by writing) in light of Marshall MacLuhan’s notion of the “global village”—the mass-mediated group-consciousness promoted by electronic. ix-xxx. media. Norton.” In Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. newly mediated and amplified by electronic and digital technologies. pp. and trans. an art of language.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. I would like to thank Ann Rowland for directing me back to Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper” and to Peter Manning’s essay on the poem (1990). Austin: University of Texas Press. in the first instance. and now digital. Harvard University References Antin 1994 David Antin.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART 161 seems unavoidably true that. Bertrand Harris Bronson. Bakhtin. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics. Ong has suggested. and Laura Slatkin for commenting on and improving every version of this essay and for her illuminating discussions of poiesis. as Walter J. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. M. has displaced the primacy of text and print. 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. we now live in a world governed by secondary orality—in which the oral/aural domain. 84-258. The vitality of poetry will surely continue to depend on this ongoing negotiation between a history of linguistically based traditions—whether “oral” or not—and an embrace of new media. M. Question. New York: W. Charles Bernstein. 26 This essay developed in conversation with several friends and colleagues: in addition to acknowledging my debt to their thinking and support. Ed. “a private occasion in a public place. 26 Society of Fellows. See Ong 1982:136-37. pp. 230-46.
and Nineteenth-Century Scottish Fiction. Oral Poetry: Its Nature. In The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. William Hazlitt. vol.” Studies in Romanticism. 15167. James Macpherson. Norton. Paul J. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edinburgh: Curtis 1983 deGategno 1989 Fielding 1996 Finnegan 1992 Gaskill 1991 Goody 1977 Groom 1999 Harker 1985 Jack Goody. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Significance. Nick Groom. 1977. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Eric A. Paul Hoover. in Two Volumes. Writing and Orality: Nationality. by B. Poems. pub. ed. Dave Harker. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Jared Curtis. New Haven: Yale University Press. Orig. Culture. Havelock 1986 Hazlitt 1930 Hoover 1994 Langan 2001 . ed. The Making of Percy’s Reliques. Howard Gaskill. W. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. “Understanding Media in 1805: Audiovisual Hallucination in The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. “On the Living Poets. Havelock. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Dent. Toronto: J. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Boston: Twayne. M. Fakesong: The Manufacture of British ‘Folksong’: 1700 to The Present Day. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Edinburgh University Press. New York: W. 5.” In Lectures on the English Poets. Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Celeste Langan.162 Chandler 1998 MAUREEN McLANE James Chandler. deGategno. P. Ruth Finnegan. pp. and Other Poems. 1800-1807. Howe. and Social Context. Ossian Revisited. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. 40:49-70. ed. Penny Fielding. Ed.
Asia. pp. “‘No More Margins’: John Cage. Stafford. Oxford: Oxford University Press. together with some few of later date. and other pieces of our earlier poets. . 3 vols. Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. “‘Will No One Tell Me What She Sings?’: The Solitary Reaper and the Contexts of Criticism. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. 1886. Rev. by Howard Gaskill.” In his Reading Romantics: Texts and Contexts. Intro.USE AND ABUSE OF “ORALITY” FOR ART Macpherson 1996 163 James Macpherson. Wheatley. ed. consisting of old heroic ballads. of Swan Sonneschein. Ong. pp. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.” Modern Philology. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa. New York: Leavitt and Allen. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. pp. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. Marjorie Perloff. Thomas Percy. Walter J. McLane. M. London and New York: Methuen. Jerome Rothenberg. Rpt. Peter Manning. 1914-1945. New York: Dover. Revolution of the Word: A New Gathering of American Avant Garde Poetry. Ed. New York: Seabury Press. The Poems of Ossian and Related Works. Europe and Oceania. Gregory Nagy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Berkeley: University of California Press. “Ballads and Bards: British Romantic Orality. songs. together with the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Manning 1990 McLane 2001 Nagy 1996 Ong 1982 Percy 1886/1996 Perloff 1981 Rothenberg 1974 Rothernberg 1985 Rothenberg and Joris 1995-98 Scott 1830 .” In her The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. 241-72. and Pierre Joris. 2 vols. David Antin. 311-54. by Henry B. America. 98:423-43. and the Poetry of Performance. by Fiona J. Walter Scott. ed. 2nd ed. 288-340. “Lay of the Last Minstrel” (1805) in the 1830 edition of The Poetical Works of Walter Scott.
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